Constitutional amendment on education dies in Senate committee

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A proposal to add an amendment to the state constitution that would give the Tennessee Legislature full discretion to determine the funding and eligibility of public schools failed on Wednesday.

The joint resolution sponsored by Sen. Delores Gresham, a Somerville Republican (SJR461), died in the Senate Education Committee.

The legislation was proposed as some Tennessee school systems are waging a court battle to secure more education funding. Hamilton County and six surrounding school systems filed a lawsuit last year saying the schools challenged the adequacy of school funding. The Shelby County Board of Education followed by filing a lawsuit saying the funding was so low that it violated a child’s right to a free and equal education.

Gresham’s resolution was amended to match a resolution filed by Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, that would allow the Legislature to “provide for the maintenance, support and eligibility standards of a system of free public schools in such manner as the General Assembly may determine.”

Dunn said the purpose of his resolution was to emphasize the role of lawmakers, and not judges, in setting education policy. He said he began thinking about proposing the amendment after finding out what “activist judges” have done around the country and then hearing about lawsuits filed in Tennessee.

“And some of these schools systems, they read the Constitution as that it’s an unelected judge who determines educational policy, and my amendment just clarifies that, no, it’s the elected representatives who do.”

A former lawmaker who represents smaller school districts said he feared the amendment would have allowed the Legislature to gut education funding.

“This constitutional amendment was intended to destroy every public school child’s constitutional right to an adequate education,” said Roy Herron, a former state senator and attorney who represents the Tennessee Small Schools for Equity. “It was intended to make whatever the Legislature does or fails to do be deemed constitutionally adequate, so school systems and school children could not challenge inadequacies in their educational system.

Note: The resolution fell one vote shy of the five needed for passage. Voting yes were Sens. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City; Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga; Ferrell Haile, R-Gallatin; and Gresham. Noting no was Sen. Steve Dickerson, R-Nashville. Sens. Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald; Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville; and Reginald Tate, D-Memphis, abstained. Sen. Bryan Kelsey, R-Germantown, was absent.